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DRM: The Big Two
When it comes to digital rights management and content protection, Microsoft PlayReady and Adobe Flash Access aren't the only names in town, but they're the biggest. Here's a look at the latest features in each.
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Adobe's Flash Access and Microsoft's PlayReady aren't the only solutions for digital rights management—Widevine and Irdeto are two others—but they're by far the biggest names in the DRM field. Here's what the companies each want you to know about their services.

Microsoft PlayReady
Microsoft has been developing media DRM technologies for over a decade. The early days focused on a technology package called Windows Media Digital Rights Management (WMDRM) that primarily integrated with the Windows Media Player.

"This wealth of experience was applied to the development of Microsoft PlayReady technology," said Jonathan Usher, Microsoft's director of Content Access and Protection Group. "PlayReady benefits from years of software engineering, so we designed PlayReady to have far broader usage scenarios than WMDRM because the industry increasingly needed a content access and protection technology that enables business rules to be applied to essentially any type of content."

More Than Video
Microsoft sees PlayReady as a technology that protects more than just audio and video. Business rules that are applicable to audio and video are generic enough to be applicable to other content types.

"The ability to protect a wide range of content types-including images, games, and so on-is key to our approach," said Usher, "since both the types of protected video content and the business models are many and varied-purchase, rental, subscription, and pay per view."

On the video streaming front, Microsoft supports a wide range of audio and video codecs, including H.264, VC-1, and WMV, in addition to AAC/AAC+/Enhanced AAC+ and WMA audio codecs.

More Than Just the Desktop
I asked Usher about the tie-in between PlayReady and Silverlight playback on a computer. After all, as of March 2010, Silverlight has installations approaching 60 percent of all Internet-connected devices worldwide-a jump, Usher says, of nearly 15 percentage points since November 2009.

"Silverlight uses PlayReady technology for content protection, enabling the protected delivery of rich, dynamic, interactive experiences," said Usher.  "These experiences can be enjoyed on both PCs and Macs and, in the future, also on embedded devices-via recently announced System-on-a-Chip (SoC) platform support in Silverlight 4. We now also include support for offline content, allowing both in-browser or out-of-browser experiences beyond Silverlight's traditional online streaming content focus."

"PlayReady features start with one premise," said Usher, "and that is to help consumers more easily access and share protected content among their devices-including domains and embedded license support-while protecting the content to the level a content owner requires."

The ability to protect content in Silverlight scenarios for delivery to both PCs and Macs is important, but Usher says it's equally important to consider offline content needs.

"PlayReady has a key role in enabling content access and protection for many scenarios involving high value content," he continued. "Anticipating a breadth of usage that included desktops, consumer electronic and embedded devices, we designed PlayReady so that it could be readily implemented on a wide range of platforms and devices, including Windows PCs and Macs (via Silverlight) as well as consumer devices ranging from mobile phones to portable media players, connected TVs, set top boxes.

For example, earlier this year, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) selected PlayReady as a DRM technology that all DECE Retailers are required to utilize in delivering content," said User, referring to the selection process in which he DECE picked five DRM technologies, including PlayReady, for consumer electronic devices.

"For customers for whom DRM interoperability is important, PlayReady supports DRM interoperability via the Protected Interoperable File Format (PIFF)," he continued. "PIFF is a standards-based file format that enables DRM interoperability and is the foundation for the DECE common media file format specification.  PIFF also provides a single encoding format for distribution of audio and video content via adaptive streaming, download, local or optical storage, side-loading, and so on."

Licensing and Modularity
PlayReady has a licensable porting kit that manufacturers use to port PlayReady to their devices. According to Usher, the kit includes an ANSI-C source code form of PlayReady and documentation.

"We also license a PlayReady PC Software Development Kit," he said, "to enable developers to build PlayReady support directly into their applications. It includes support for both AES standard encryption as well as WMDRM's encryption technology so as to provide backwards-compatibility for WMDRM-protected content."

Usher says traction in the CE space is accelerating.

"In April, Samsung Electronics announced plans to include PlayReady in a broad range of its consumer products," he said, "including mobile phones, digital video players, televisions, and other devices. More generally, we're also seeing very high growth in the number of companies who have licensed PlayReady. A year ago there were 50 PlayReady licensees; today there are over 150 licensees."

Taking Their Medicine
Microsoft says it uses its own PlayReady technology in its media offerings.

"Microsoft is implementing PlayReady ourselves in key products such as Microsoft Mediaroom 2.0," said Usher, referring to the company's widely deployed IPTV platform, "to enable new entertainment scenarios on a range of devices including set-top boxes. We also use PIFF for domain playback, to enable more seamless scenarios for consumers, output protection, and support for protected H.264/AAC content delivery across device types and platforms."

PlayReady is also backed by a 24/7 breach management team and has renewable security to maximize its effectiveness. It is being used today to protect content for many of the world's top online video content services-including services from BSkyB (Sky Player), Netflix (Watch Instantly), Yahoo! Japan, Canal+, RTL, TV2 Norway, Telenor, Swisscom, and many more. 

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